Pilgrims, piety and pragmatism: Roman sanctuaries and late antique churches in the Cyclades

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From the 7th to 1st century BCE Cycladic sanctuaries such as that of Poseidon and Amphitrite on Tinos and Dionysus at Andros earned a reputation as worth seeing (Strabo Geog. x.5.11). This was due to a range of circumstances besides devotion: cultural value, visibility, accessibility and chance (eg weather issues or as a spinoff of trade). During the Roman period, in spite of the islands’ reputations as pirate-infested places of exile, the Cyclades continued to host a respectable number of visitors with religious and cultural objectives. As the rich variety of sanctuaries increased with the inclusion of cults such as Isis and Mithras, so too did the diversity of travellers (eg Imperial and military). These visitors created an important suite of network connections such as personal, political and economic. These connections could be local or international, temporary or permanent depending on local motivation to develop them. A consciousness of the positive potential of a well-visited religious place is reflected in the locations of some polytheistic sanctuaries and some of the earliest Christian churches. However, the extent to which one can assess the role of pragmatism over piety in the choice of religious spaces is not clear-cut, in part because sanctuaries often remain in continuous use from their foundation until the Roman period. In the Cyclades, during the Late Antique period, new churches were constructed beside existing sanctuaries without encroaching on the temple space (for example the Basilica of Agios Kyrikos was located to the east of the Agora of the Delians) and some cults may have continued. Only a small number of temples were converted into churches, such Gyroula and Portaria on Naxos, and this occurred in the 6th century, much later than the construction of the earliest churches. In order to go some way to contributing to the question of pragmatism over piety, the aim of this paper is to take a diachronic look at the topography of the religious places of the Cyclades, from polytheistic sanctuaries to monotheistic churches. In considering the extent to which Christian churches drew on traditions of travel to help situate the new religion in the existing religious topography, we examine user-experience and question what attracts visitors to religious places and how is this maintained even after a change in religion.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPilgrims in place, pilgrims in motion
Subtitle of host publicationsacred travel in the ancient Mediterranean
EditorsAnna Collar, Troels Myrup Kristensen
Place of PublicationAarhus
PublisherAarhus University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9788772198934
ISBN (Print)9788771845433
Publication statusPublished - 2 Feb 2024

Publication series

NameAarhus studies in Mediterranean antiquity


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